In Who Abolished Slavery? Slave Revolts and Abolitionism, the historian of Portuguese abolition, João Pedro Marques, argues against what he describes as two misinterpretations. For Marques, these were: "first, that revolts were always ways of fighting slavery; and secondly, that the decision to end the system of slavery in most Western nations was for the most part the outcome of such revolts."(p. 5) Marques disagrees with both of these views and maintains that it is not possible to establish a correlation between slave uprisings and the acts of emancipation in the West.
In his analysis of slave revolts, Marques only includes those involving more than 300 enslaved people. He also makes a clear distinction between maroon societies and anti-slavery activities: maroon societies were interested in obtaining freedom for themselves but were not necessarily opposed to the system of slavery itself. Indeed, Marques rightly points out that maroons had slaves themselves, helped to catch runaway slaves and also assisted the colonial forces in putting down slave rebellions. In general, then, Marques believes that enslaved people objected to their own enslavement but rarely to the institution of slavery. Slave rebellions were not therefore synonymous with anti-slavery. This was also the case, Marques maintains, for revolts on board ships on the Middle Passage. Those revolts neither prevented the continuation of the trade nor had a significant impact on the abolition of the trade.
In the book, Marques examines several slave revolts that arguably had a direct impact on abolition. The first and most important was Haiti, the colony with the one successful slave revolt in the Americas. Marques recognizes that the enslaved in Haiti fought to end slavery, but argues that the leader of the revolt, Toussaint L'Ouverture, was not himself an abolitionist. Moreover, for Marques, Haiti had no impact on the emancipation of other countries in the Americas. In the specific cases of the slave rebellions in Barbados, Demerara and Jamaica in the early nineteenth century, Marques maintains that abolitionism played a part in the rebellions rather than the rebellions leading to abolition. In the Jamaica rebellion of 1831, for example, it was not the revolt itself but rather the persecution of European missionaries in the island that encouraged abolition. In general, then, Marques concludes that abolitionism "encouraged rebellions of a new kind, because rebel leaders very quickly understood what was at stake and tried to set in motion actions that would blend in with the abolitionist movement".(p. 37)
In addition to these case studies, Marques discusses the historiography of slave rebellions. He believes that historians such as Herbert Aptheker, CLR James and Richard Hart were tainted by ideology in looking at the effects of slave rebellions. For Marques, these historians manipulated history because they sought to give dignity to the oppressed rather than examine the impact of slave rebellions more carefully. Had they done so, they would have seen that "the vast majority of abolitions were not preceded by rebellions". (p. 73).
Since the sub-title of the book is A debate with João Pedro Marques, Marques' views are explored in the book. Other historians have contributed ten short chapters, which support, critique or respond to Marques' arguments. For example, the two editors of the book, Pieter Emmer and Seymour Drescher, generally agree with Marques. In his chapter, Emmer concentrates on the Dutch Caribbean and points out the maroons in Suriname were hardly abolitionists. In regard to the 1795 slave rebellion in Curaçao, Emmer argues that the slaves were following ideas emanating from Europe. Similarly, Drescher maintains that slave rebellions were not synonymous with anti-slavery, either in intention or impact. Two other historians, Robin Blackburn and Hilary Beckles, argue against Marques' views. Blackburn not only highlights the general historiographical amnesia about slave resistance but also points out the significance of the resistance of African-born enslaved people. Beckles discusses the anti-slavery consciousness among the enslaved and maintains that this could lead to rebellion but also to accommodation.
As a historian who has written about slave resistance, I found much of the discussion in this book of considerable interest. I also found some of Marques' arguments problematical. As I have already indicated, Marques limits his discussion of slave rebellions to those with over 300 slaves. Yet many significant rebellions involved many fewer enslaved people. These included rebellions that Marques himself mentions, such as the Nat Turner revolt or the 1733 revolt in St. John. More importantly, some of Marques' arguments are not new and take a position that most historians have long accepted. Marques therefore maintains that many slave revolts were not intended to suppress slavery and cites Tacky's Revolt in Jamaica in 1760 as an example. But we know that Tacky and the other Africans involved in the revolt were willing to enslave people who did not join them. Similarly, we also know that maroon societies had slaves themselves and subsequently agreed with the colonial authorities to return slaves.
There are other problems with Marques' analysis. Some of it is sloppy and some of it is badly translated. It is inappropriate to translate the gens du couleur (the free people of colour) as "half-breeds". Marques' case is not helped by mistakes such as dating the Jamaica revolt of 1831 in 1823 or describing the maroons wrongly as people of mixed race. Nor is it useful to argue that Toussaint was not an abolitionist. Marques' understating the importance of black abolitionists is also worrying: see, for example, his statement: "let us discard the idea that abolitionism owes 'something vital' to men such as Equiano or Cogoana". (p. 196) He is also unaware of research showing the very significant impact of shipboard revolts on the Transatlantic slave trade. In addition, Marques does not recognize the enormous scale and the devastating suppression of the Jamaica revolt of 1831: for him, it was "just one more slave revolt" and its suppression as "not even. particularly brutal". (p. 36) In fact, the opposite was the case.
In the end, Marques fails to respond to the very balanced approach advocated by David Eltis and Stanley Engerman. In their chapter, they seek to understand how slaves and abolitionists influenced each other, rather than arguing that it was only either slave rebellions or abolitionists who were responsible for emancipation. For Marques, in his conclusion, that "could be comfortable but would leave many questions unanswered". (p. 199) On the contrary and however uncomfortable that would be, it is the way forward in studies of resistance and abolitionism.